HARRISBURG -- John Pudner, who masterminded a grassroots, Tea Party upset of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, has a new Goliath in his sights: campaign finance reform.
So, maybe it's unsurprising that Pudner's been interested in the news from Harrisburg lately. The Rob McCord scandal caught his attention, he said, as an example of how “transactional giving” has perverted politics.
McCord resigned in disgrace as state treasurer last month, ahead of federal charges that he used his office to extort money from donors during a failed bid for the Democratic nomination for governor. He's expected to enter a guilty plea on Tuesday.
McCord stands out because of his reported audacity. But the hazy influence of campaign donations on public policy is common enough.
The specter of crony capitalism haunted the Corbett administration. Big donors landed cabinet spots and other plum appointments. The gas industry gave former Gov. Tom Corbett about $1 million in his first run for governor. His administration then adopted a drilling-friendly philosophy that infuriated environmentalists and frustrated others who watched as local schools struggled to recover from state funding cuts.
As NPR’s State Impact has noted, Corbett’s former top energy adviser, Patrick Henderson, left the governor’s office and headed straight to a job with the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the leading gas industry mouthpiece.
The game cuts both ways.
On the campaign trail, Gov. Tom Wolf focused on taxing gas drillers for schools as a centerpiece of his platform. Angered by Corbett's cuts, the state’s largest teachers’ union contributed more than $800,000 to the Wolf campaign.
Predictably, ahead of next month's budget address, Wolf has announced plans to follow through with a 5.5 percent extraction tax on drillers. Just as predictably, the teachers union put out a statement praising him for this “common-sense, popular and fair” plan.
It might be all that. But it also might be more evidence that Pennsylvania and the federal government, as Pudner says, ought to examine common-sense strategies for combatting the influence of money in politics.
“Campaign finance is the root of a lot of problems,” he said in a phone interview. “There is so much focus on getting big checks.”
He encountered this head-on as he worked to help Congressman David Brat build support during his campaign to upset Cantor.
Pudner recalls meetings with voters in which campaign staff would coax donations from people unused to making contributions.
They’d get out their pens to write a check then ask: This is tax-deductible, right?
Er, no. And the pens would go away.
Pudner is leading a new group called Take Back Our Republic that is agitating for a conservative strategy for campaign finance reform.
The way to tip the balance, he says, might be to encourage more small donors to contribute.
Last year, the top 100 donors nationally gave a combined $323 million in campaign contributions. That’s almost as much as the $356 million given by 4.75 million people who donated $200 or less, according to a Politico analysis pointed to by Pudner.
Just over 2 percent of American adults donate to political campaigns. Less than 0.3 percent of adults gave over $200, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Pudner thinks the government should use tax credits to encourage small donors struggling to find room in their household budgets to write a check to help a candidate.
Someone who donates $200 isn’t likely to expect big favors down the line. A donor who writes a six-figure check? That may be another matter.
And Pudner makes the case that campaign finance reform should matter to small-government conservatives.
“Transactional giving might be leading to government spending,” he said.